In this podcast, Paul Kelley from the law firm Satterley & Kelley talks about where and how people get exposed to asbestos. He explains occupational risks, military risks, and secondary exposure. He also explains why the long latency period from exposure to mesothelioma diagnosis can make it challenging for people to identify when and where they were exposed.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky personal injury law firm, Satterley & Kelley, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Good morning, John. How are you?
John: Good, thanks. So, Paul, why is it important to know about asbestos and where it can be found?
Paul: Well, unfortunately, John, asbestos is still prevalent in America today. I mean, historically it’s been used for more than a hundred years in the United States and throughout the world. While it certainly has been regulated for the last 50 years and banned in some instances, you can still find it in a lot of products and you can still find it in a lot of buildings, houses, places where people work and live and populate every day. And unfortunately, people aren’t fully aware of asbestos. And I get the question all the time. Is that still out there? Is that still a problem? And I tell people unfortunately it is still out there. It is still a problem.
And so what we try to do is, as a part of our responsibility as lawyers who have been representing mesothelioma patients and people exposed to asbestos for years, is not just try to go back in time and help them when they get sick, but try to prevent people from getting sick 30, 40 years down the road. Because unfortunately, an exposure today will not result in disease tomorrow. It will result in disease 20, 30, 40 years from now when young people have families and when older people are hitting their golden years, and now they’re suffering from this devastating cancer and they don’t know why they got it.
So we try to provide information through forums like this, as well as through our website, to try to help people understand that while it may not be at the top of the list of dangers that they’re concerned about, it’s something you should be aware about, because it is, it’s the silent killer. The asbestos has what we call the onion properties. There’s no smell, there’s no taste to it. I mean, it’s out there, you get exposed, and people don’t think anything of it, and then 30 years later when they get sick, they try to figure out, “Well, where was I exposed?”
And I would say that better than half of our clients come in and they have no clue where they were exposed until they talk to us and we start exploring and investigating and coming up with a history of their work and their life experiences. And most of the time we’re able to pinpoint it to a particular job or to a particular set of exposures or an environmental situation. But it’s tough. And it’s especially tough when it’s not the top of people’s list of things to be worried about. But certainly, if things get bad and someone’s diagnosed with a disease many years down the road, it becomes very important at that point.
John: Right. So what are some of the most common ways that a person could be exposed to asbestos?
Paul: Well, certainly the most common is occupationally. For close to 30 years, we’ve represented people who worked in a variety of jobs and occupations where they were exposed to asbestos, from manufacturing jobs to electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, folks that worked in manufacturing plants, power plant workers, plastic molding operations. So certainly occupationally is one source.
Another source is unfortunately the family members of people who lived with people that worked in some of those occupations that I mentioned a moment ago, they are exposed when the worker family member comes home and has asbestos on their clothing from a full day of work. We’ve heard a number of times from children and spouses who never worked in asbestos, a husband or wife or dad came home, and we ran through the door and gave them a big hug and were exposed in that way. Didn’t think anything of it at the time. The spouses and children who washed the exposed family member’s clothing. They frequently would shake the clothing out because it’s laden with dust.
But the biggest issue with that respect is the fact that once it gets into the home, it’s there to stay. It doesn’t matter how much exposure the worker had on a particular day, particular month or throughout their career. Once they bring asbestos into the home and it gets into the carpeting, it gets into the furniture, gets into the air conditioning and heating vents, then unfortunately you have an asbestos problem there to stay, and everybody in the home is getting exposed. So that’s certainly a way that we’ve seen a number of people exposed throughout the 30 years we’ve been doing this.
Unfortunately, there are products in the home that people are exposed to. Most recently, talcum powder, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and other talcum powder products that are seemingly harmless products that are inside your home, those products have been proven. We have proven routinely in litigation that they contain asbestos. And it’s probably the last thing in anyone’s home that they expected to cause them harm, but those types of products.
In addition, there have been products historically in the home. Drywall, specifically the joint compounds used for sanding down and mudding walls contain asbestos. Floor tile. So there’s a number of ways that people can be exposed in the home.
And then environmentally, we’ve had a number of people that lived in the vicinity of asbestos plants or plants that used asbestos, and they were exposed just sitting in their home, and unfortunately having the misfortune of living too close to a place that utilized millions of pounds of asbestos on a monthly basis. So those are certainly some of the most common ways that we’ve seen that people have been exposed to asbestos.
John: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about each one of those in a little bit more depth. So in terms of the jobs that are the most common ways to be exposed to asbestos, you mentioned a few of them. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what are some of the most common jobs that people have where they might have been exposed to asbestos?
Paul: Absolutely. So historically, the heaviest groups of people who were exposed were the people that actually worked with raw asbestos back in the ’30s, ’40s and throughout the 1970s, that made a variety of products, including asbestos insulation. I mean, that was probably one of the most significant products. So the people that worked in those plants.
Now, in the United States in 2022, there’s certainly not a lot of people that are exposed in that way. But again, given how long this country used asbestos, there’s certainly a number of people that were engaged in those occupations that are still alive and they’re still very much at risk, so anyone who worked in an asbestos manufacturing plant.
Aside from that, insulators throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and into the ’70s and ’80s, insulated numerous facilities with asbestos-containing pipe, block insulation, and numerous thermal insulation products. They also, in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and maybe into the ’80s, installed it. And then in the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and beyond, several of them were again exposed when they were engaged to remove or abate asbestos from those facilities. So anybody that’s involved in asbestos abatement, hopefully their employers are using the safest and greatest methods for abatement, but unfortunately I think statistics have proven that they’re still at risk.
In today’s day and age, I think automobile mechanics are still at great risk of suffering asbestos exposure. Historically, brakes contain asbestos going back from the 1930s until the early 2000s. You won’t find too many American manufacturers that still utilize asbestos in brakes today. However, you will find foreign manufacturers that do, and some of those foreign manufacturers will send products to the United States, and I think that there’s probably still a limited amount of asbestos that mechanics are exposed to.
But historically, prior to 2001, mechanics or anyone that was involved in any sort of brake operation, whether it was somebody that worked in a Ford plant or GM plant installing asbestos brakes onto a brand new vehicle, or the auto mechanics that worked at the dealership auto shops day in and day out removed and installed asbestos containing brakes. Or the guy that had the mom and pop mechanic operation, and brake jobs were the most prevalent job that they would get because it was the easiest to do and it was the most common task that someone needed.
We have represented people that were called rebuilders of brake products. So they took asbestos linings, brand new linings, and put them on to what’s called a refurbished or remanufactured brake shoe, and they would be exposed in a variety of ways, from drilling into the lining, sanding the lining, grinding the lining. So brake mechanics unfortunately were exposed fairly regularly in the United States through the early 2000s. And with the latency period with asbestos, we expect unfortunately that quite a few folks will develop this disease in the future as a result of that type of exposure.
In addition, pipe fitters and plumbers, particularly pipe fitters that worked in industrial commercial settings. They worked with asbestos gaskets. They were frequently working around thermal insulation around pipes and other equipment and plants, and they historically had heavy exposures.
Tile manufacturers or folks that worked in tile manufacturing companies. Tile contained asbestos for decades, probably deep into the early 2000s. Asbestos containing talc and other products were a component to tile, so anybody that worked in that kind of a plant, they were not told that that tile contained asbestos by either the manufacturer or their employer. So we frequently will get new clients who will say, “Well, I worked in this plant for years. They made tiles. There was no asbestos in the plant. I never had any exposure.” And we tell them the grim truth, which is that they had decades of exposure using those kinds of products.
Power plant workers. Power plants were loaded with asbestos. These are the old power plants that used steam turbines and boilers. And many of those plants were built all throughout the, let’s say ’30 to 1970s. The turbines contain asbestos, the boilers contain asbestos, the piping connected to them contained asbestos. And so folks that built those facilities, folks that worked in those facilities, they were all exposed on some level. And it really only came down to what their job title was as to whether they were exposed to a lot, or maybe a relatively limited amount over the course of their career. And usually they’re pipe fitters, they’re electricians, they’re millwrights. Those were the kinds of occupations that frequently worked in those plants and were frequently exposed to asbestos.
I just mentioned electricians. Electricians of all type, but particularly electricians that worked in industrial settings, they would have exposures similar to the pipe fitters and the insulators, in that they were frequently exposed to thermal insulation, which was maybe not directly associated with their work, but they couldn’t avoid it from what they were doing. In addition, there were a lot of plastic products like circuit breakers and breaker boxes and a variety of electrical equipment that electricians worked with, that they drilled into on a frequent basis and were frequently exposed.
And probably the other most common that we’ve seen is people that worked in plastic molding plants that were exposed to some of the molding compounds that were used to make products like what I just discussed a moment ago, the circuit breakers and breaker boxes and the variety of electrical products. A lot of those things were made with asbestos, and somebody had to make those products, and those folks were heavily exposed for a lot of years. And those kinds of products were used deep into the 1980s, for sure.
John, there’s a lot of others. I mean, we could spend the whole day talking about all of the occupations. But the bottom line, if somebody worked in a manufacturing plant prior to 1980, prior to 1990, if they were an electrician, insulator, pipe fitter, they were more than likely exposed to asbestos at some point in time. And certainly folks in the automotive industry, if they handled brakes ever, then they were certainly exposed.
John: Right. And you’re talking here about people who had this exposure, in some cases 40 or even 50 years ago, but that’s just how long it takes, right, from when they’re initially exposed to asbestos to when they might develop a cancer like mesothelioma.
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, the statistics will show that people have been diagnosed as early as 10 years, but that’s pretty uncommon. Usually the diagnosis comes 30 to 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos. And so, again, frequently people will contact me and say, “I was an accountant for last 30 years,” and then we dig in a little bit and find out that before they earned their college degree, they worked in a manufacturing plant for two summers and were exposed to asbestos, and they forgot about that because that was 40 years ago.
And so it’s really a difficult disease and difficult disease process, because that latency period, and that’s what we call it, latency, from the time of first exposure until diagnosis. Because it is so long, it’s just it’s hard for people to go back and remember everything. And that’s why they need someone to ask them the questions, because otherwise, they were kept in the dark frequently and just didn’t know. And physicians who treat patients with this disease will dig in a little bit, and most times be able to pinpoint where the exposures were.
John: And you said that in a lot of cases, it’s not just an exposure of that person who is sick, that they had one of these jobs, that there’s a secondary exposure to danger here as well, that you could have a family member who was exposed and then maybe brought that back in into the home, and like you said, shook off the dust and it gets into the air and the carpet and the air conditioning, whatever it is.
Talk a little bit more about that secondary exposure. Is that a large number of people that you find, that when you sit down with them, they didn’t have the exposure themselves, but they apparently got it because they had maybe a family member who was exposed to asbestos?
Paul: Absolutely, John. So we have been handling what we call household exposure, take-home, secondary. We’ve been handling cases like that for more than 20 years. In terms of prevalence, I would say that probably half of the cases that I worked on for the last 10 years or so have been that kind of a case.
Paul: And the problem with asbestos is that it doesn’t take a lot to cause this disease process mesothelioma. There’s some other condition: lung cancer, asbestosis, which is a non-cancerous asbestos condition. The studies seem to bear out that it takes a significant amount of exposure over a long period of years to cause those diseases. The medical and scientific evidence indicates that with respect to mesothelioma, that short exposures over a short period of time can lead to this devastating disease process. So when you’re talking about people that are exposed in the home to a family member’s clothing… I’m an advocate for my clients. I think any exposure is significant exposure, but I would concede that that kind of exposure is not the same as a person that worked in the insulation craft for 30 years. But they’re still getting a significant exposure that increases their risk of getting mesothelioma.
So what we’re seeing today is people that… I’m 48-years-old, and we are getting calls from people that are around my age, a little younger, a little older, and they’ve had white collar jobs their entire life, and they have no clue as to how they could be exposed. So we start going through the history and we determine, well, they never worked in a manufacturing plant. They never used Johnson’s baby powder, for example. But dad worked at a plastic manufacturing company, or mom worked at a powerhouse, and we see that that’s clearly where an exposure was. And once it gets on the clothing, it gets into the car the parent or the spouse drove home in, and it’s just there.
And think about in today’s day and age, if somebody identified asbestos at a home or at a manufacturing plant, they would bring out abatement companies to come in and they’d wear the Tyvek suits, which we frequently call the moon suits. And they’d have what’s called HEPA vacuums, these industrial vacuums that are made specifically to remove asbestos from a facility. And when they get done, the goal is to basically have zero, zero asbestos.
Well, in the home, once asbestos gets into the home… And, John, you can probably relate and maybe some of our listeners can. When I was growing up, everybody had the shag carpet. You know what I’m talking about. And so you couldn’t get any dust out of that stuff. Well, imagine bringing a carcinogen home day in and day out, and it gets into the carpeting. People walk through and stir up dust. Mom or dad or someone in the family is running a vacuum cleaner. That vacuum cleaner, the regular Hoover, it doesn’t remove the asbestos, it stirs it up. That’s what it does.
Paul: And the studies on this have been interesting. This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve learned over the years that back in the 1960s, and in fact, 1960, when asbestos was first recognized as the cause of mesothelioma, mesothelioma was really recognized as the disease process. In addition to the occupational exposures that were certainly already identified as having been a problem, the studies started to identify people that were exposed in the home, to their spouse or to their parent. And that was a famous study in 1960, and then there was another one in 1965. And by the time OSHA came into effect, the Occupational Safety Health Act, in the early 1970s, OSHA had implemented regulations in part to try to prevent people from being exposed to asbestos-laden clothing of the worker.
So it’s been something that the medical and scientific literature have identified as a problem for 50, 60 years now, and it’s certainly something that all of our regulatory agencies, as well as some of your trade organizations have identified as a significant problem. And so people have unfortunately had to suffer this disease, simply because they were unfortunate enough to live in the household of someone who unknowingly brought home asbestos day in and day out for decades, exposing their spouse and their loved ones. It’s really been a pretty terrible problem that we’ve seen over the years, and I don’t anticipate that that’s going to change any time soon, again, given the latency issue that we’ve discussed already.
John: Right, right. You also mentioned products that have historically had asbestos in them, like talcum powder and drywall, floor tile, things like that. Tell us a little bit more about those products, and are there still products that are being manufactured or used today that still have asbestos in them?
Paul: Yeah. So I think we’ve touched on a lot of them already, but historically I think I’ve seen the statistic that there were 3,000 products that were manufactured with asbestos, dating back to the 1930s and ’40s. Again, occupationally, we’d see thermal insulation and brakes and joint compounds and gaskets. And we’ve also seen things like sewer pipes. Look like concrete, but they were made of something that contained asbestos. There was a point in time in the 1950s where Kent cigarettes, manufactured by the Lorillard Tobacco Company right here where I’m residing in Louisville, Kentucky, contained asbestos for about five years. And it was advertised as the safe cigarette, and then it, of course, was not.
Circuit breakers, panel boxes. We’ve mentioned floor and ceiling tiles, drywall, roofing shingles. So people have removed roofing shingles and the adhesives the roofing shingles are laid down, and those things contain asbestos. Sometimes paneling on houses contain asbestos. So today we have our vinyl or our aluminum siding, but back in the day, some of those things actually contained asbestos. So there’s been so many products over the years.
In today’s day and age, I would say that there’s probably some construction products that are still used, some sealants, things that already come in a mixed format which are probably a little bit safer, but there’s some things that are still utilized where they have to be mixed with water in a dry manner, and people that work in the construction industry are still exposed. I think there’s still some brakes in the United States, that they’re imported from foreign sources, where a lot of our foreign countries don’t take asbestos as seriously as we do in the United States.
And some of our foreign countries take asbestos even more seriously than we do in the United States. But I would say that people that are in the automotive industry in particular should be very, very concerned about making sure that they understand what they’re working with, and particularly if it’s a brake or a clutch. Sometimes the clutch linings also contain asbestos. I think those are things that they could still be exposed to today.
And of course, I’m sure that you and a lot of folks who are listening may have been keeping up with talcum powder issues, and we’ve really blown the doors off in the last seven or eight years about Johnson & Johnson and other talcum powder manufacturers, that their products contain asbestos. The talc that is used to manufacture talcum powder, it’s mined. It’s a naturally occurring product that’s mined in various parts of the United States, various parts throughout the world, and that talc contains asbestos. And these talcum powder manufacturers have put it into their talcum powder and people are exposed.
In 2001, I believe, maybe the end of 2000, Johnson & Johnson, after facing the onslaught of litigation for both mesothelioma as well as other types of cancer, actually took baby powder off the market. You can still buy corn starch-based baby powder today, but the talcum powder versions have been taken off the market. But there are others. There are other companies that are still selling talcum powder that we believe contains asbestos. And given the fact that there are proven safer alternatives to any talcum powder product, I would recommend that no one use anything that contains talcum powder in this day and age, because the consequences many years down the road could be devastating.
John: Absolutely. Yeah. So finally, are there any other building types or maybe unusual types of places that we didn’t mention before that maybe could lead to an asbestos exposure?
Paul: You know, I think we’ve covered most everything, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the millions of military personnel who have been exposed to asbestos historically. Most of our Naval ships in the United States contained asbestos probably into the ’80s. Certainly anything that was built prior to 1972 contained asbestos. And so many of our brave men and women of the military served on these ships in some capacity and were exposed to the giant boilers that were on these ships and the turbines that were on these ships.
And of course, they had thousands of feet of pipes that were wrapped in insulation. I’ve heard from so many of our military personnel that they slept in barracks where the piping that was ran through the ship was actually 10 feet, five feet above their head when they slept, and when the ship rattled, maybe when they fired the weapons on the ship, the dust would just fly off and fell on them and they were exposed.
And so we’ve certainly heard of some other military installations, some of the barracks and other facilities associated with the military, and we’ve seen our fair share of clients over the years who have been exposed in that manner. But other than that, I think the most common things that we see are what we’ve discussed already, the manufacturing plants and older homes and things of that nature.
John: All right. Well, that’s really helpful and important information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thank you very much, John. I appreciate the opportunity.
John: And for more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley & Kelley at satterleylaw.com, or call 800-655-2117.